by Kathy Megan
Educators said Wednesday they are relieved that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wants to slow down adoption of the state’s new teacher evaluation system, and the advisory council that created it also backed his proposal.
“The response in my building today was like, wow, at least someone is listening,” said Kathleen Phelan, a guidance counselor and a longtime teacher at East Granby High School.
The Performance Evaluation Advisory Council easily approved Malloy’s recommendations to streamline the evaluation process and delay one of its central features: linking students’ standardized test scores to a teacher’s performance rating. Malloy also called for a new group to assure that another major reform —new academic standards called the Common Core State Standards — is rolled out as successfully as possible.
“It’s apparent that we’re trying to do a lot of things at once,” Malloy told the advisory council Wednesday, “and that becomes difficult because people are stressed. We need to recognize that when that happens, it’s important that we relieve the significant demands on teachers and administrators and systems.”
“It’s more important that we get it right than that we do it fast,” he added.
After the meeting the governor emphasized that he is not backing off his support for the teacher evaluation system or the Common Core. It’s “not that either one isn’t the right thing to do,” Malloy said, “but drinking out of a fire hose is not easy for everybody.”
In recent months, teachers and other educators have intensified their criticism of the new evaluation system, arguing that its requirement of multiple teacher observations and its heavy burden of data collection has detracted from their ability to teach well and taken up too much of administrators’ time.
Mark Waxenberg, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association and a member of the advisory council, called Malloy’s recommendations “a very good first step” but added, “it’s my hope that the governor will continue to listen to the teachers’ voices.”
Stephen McKeever, first vice president of the AFT Connecticut, said the proposed changes showed the governor has been listening to teachers.
Elizabeth Natale, a Sedgwick Middle School teacher whose opinion piece in The Courant criticizing the reforms went viral last week, said: “At least we recognize that we’re being heard. [The governor] is paying some attention, but it’s only a first step. We’ll see what happens from here.”
Mark Benigni, Meriden superintendent of schools, said “everyone was relieved” to hear the governor’s proposal.
“I think everyone felt the implementation phase was too rushed,” Benigni said. “I think this will allow the process to move forward more smoothly and will give us the time we need to truly work with our teachers.”
Malloy’s recommended changes in the evaluation guidelines, which need approval from the state Board of Education, would reduce the number of observations required for experienced teachers who have high ratings from three formal observations by supervisors a year to a single formal classroom observation every three years. Those teachers would get informal observations during the off years.
In addition, the revised guidelines would clarify that a teacher can have as few as one learning objective or goal for students. They also would streamline data management requirements.
Perhaps most significantly, Malloy called for a further delay in the linkage between teachers’ evaluations and the state’s new computerized test, called the Smarter Balanced Assessment test, which is based on the Common Core standards.
The state already obtained permission from the U.S. Department of Education for districts to exclude standardized test scores in teacher evaluations this year, during the transition to the new test. Seventy percent of districts will take the new test this year instead of the Connecticut Mastery Test. Next year, all districts will take the Smarter Balanced test.
Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said many concerns persist about using next year’s test scores in teacher evaluations because districts might not receive this year’s test scores until January 2015 and the new test at first will offer no previous data for comparison.
To decouple the test from evaluations next year, the state will again have to get permission from the federal Department of Education.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Wednesday that he is aware of Connecticut’s plans and that the state’s request will be reviewed “thoroughly and objectively.”
Connecticut has “huge achievement gaps that we don’t want to sweep under the rug,” Duncan said, adding that his department wants to continue to partner with states as long as they aren’t backing down from accountability.
Jeffrey Villar, executive director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform and the former superintendent of Windsor, said he thinks modifying the new teacher evaluation system makes sense for now, but he emphasized that it’s “critically important” not to backslide on the Common Core State Standards. He also said the linkage between standardized test scores and teachers’ evaluations needs to be reinstated in 2015-16.
“Moving backward would be detrimental to our students,” Villar said, “and we want to make sure that we are globally competitive and that curriculum is certainly a component of making sure that we are.”
Republican legislators Wednesday called for a public hearing on the Common Core State Standards and for a moratorium on any new spending to enact the new academic standards.
“There has been little discussion with the legislature over what these sweeping changes in our public schools will mean for our students, educators and parents,” said Rep. Tim Ackert, R-Coventry.
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